Tuesday, January 29, 2008

My Favorite Moview of 2007, Part II

I didn’t intend for my listing of favorite books and movies from last year to stretch out through the entire month of January, but between starting a new semester of teaching and still recovering from 2007 (see the introduction to My Favorite Books of 2007), it’s taken longer than I anticipated.

Anyway, here are the remainder of my favorite movies from those I watched last year:

11. Pan’s Labyrinth

This was one of the rare movies that I felt deserved the lavish praise that was heaped upon it. I found the ending heart-breaking, but it’s a beautiful film in almost every regard.

12. Pumping Iron

This is a silly film, a documentary about Arnold Schwarzenegger’s last (and once again successful) bid for the Mr. Universe title in the late 1970s, but I found it highly entertaining. And it gave us not just one but two stars of science fiction/fantasy/action film and television, even if Lou Ferrigno’s star faded before Schwarzenegger’s.

13. Shoot the Piano Player

A great film by Truffault. This is an example of an “art film” that succeeds in being good art in part by being a good and well-crafted genre film, in this case an engaging crime and gangster caper. (Another film similar in that one regard was Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon from a few years back. Part of what was different about the film was not actually the high-flying theatrical action. Anyone who had seen The Bride with White Hair or The Heroic Trio had seen similar action, also well done. What was different about Lee’s film, and arguably Truffault’s film, was getting audiences to experience a well crafted example of genre faire many of them normally never encounter.)

14. The Simpsons Movie

“Spider Pig, Spider Pig, does whatever Spider Pig does.” If you like and get The Simpsons, I don’t need to say anything else. If you don’t like or get The Simpsons, I don’t need to say anything else.

15. The Squid and the Whale

I was really prepared to hate this film. White, upper middle class angst in pop culture turns my stomach. For example, I found the similarly praised Sideways literally unwatchable – when I tried to watch it, I was able to recognize that it seemed like a nicely put together movie, but every moment I watched annoyed me more and more. Further, while family melodramas don’t necessarily actively annoy me, they do tend to bore me – the daily lives and travails of “ordinary” people are deeply meaningful to them, but most people’s lives aren’t worth making movies about. Put them together, and I feel like there’s often something highly narcissistic about white middle class people watching movies about the trivial details of lives of people like themselves and finding it somehow profound. So, I see the fact that not only did I not hate this film, but found it actually pretty gripping to be a sign of how good the movie is. (One caveat: when the oldest son plays an acoustic version of Pink Floyd’s “Hey You” at a school talent contest, proclaiming he had written the song, I found it absurdly unbelievable that no one in an audience of mostly middle aged white people recognized it until well after the fact.)

16. Trane Tracks: The Legacy of John Coltrane

This isn’t really a documentary or movie in any conventional sense. It’s simply a collection on DVD of video footage of the John Coltrane Quartet in performance, something there’s not a lot of, unfortunately. Some of the clips have been issued on other videos, though the highlight for me was a clip I had not seen before of the quartet performing “Impressions.” Much of the video footage throughout the performance actually focuses on drummer Elvin Jones. Jones was known as a highly virtuosic, polyrhythmic drummer, something that can be readily heard from any of his recordings with Coltrane (or for that matter on any of his recordings without Coltrane). Seeing this performance, though, in addition to hearing it, is to bear witness to a spectacle of musical beauty and nearly unbelievable athletic prowess. Between his two arms and two legs, Jones bangs out four distinct rhythms simultaneously, sometimes arguably five. It was one of those visual images that altered the way I heard things, heightening my sensitivity to Jones’ drumming.

17. Umberto D.

One of the bleakest films I’ve ever seen. An old man in post-war Italy struggles to pay his rent, and after a series of misfortunes ultimately ends up homeless, having nothing but his small dog, Flick. As the film ends, he resolves to kill himself and Flick by stepping in front of a train. As the train approaches, Flick becomes increasingly agitated, eventually leaping from the man’s arms and running away. The man desperately tries to catch up to Flick, but the dog nervously shies away from him now. At the very end of the movie, Flick finally comes back to the man (which is the only reason the film didn’t leave me crying for a week), but you know there’s no real future for this man and his dog.

18. I Vitelloni
An early Fellini film. It’s not one of his great films, but even decent Fellini is pretty good. This is a sort of coming of age story of five young men from Rimini, a sort of Italian Diner, except a better and more interesting movie.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

My Favorite Movies of 2007, Part I

I saw quite a few movies last year that I highly enjoyed for one reason or another: movies that I thought were well crafted examples of cinema as art; movies that kept me thinking; and/or movies that I found entertaining.

The following (in alphabetical order) are my favorite movies of 2007, “of 2007” in this case meaning movies that I watched during 2007.

1. Blade Runner

One of my favorite science fiction movies of all time. For that matter, one of my favorite movies of all time. When I re-watched this movie this past year, it was probably about the 35th or so time I had watched it. (For the record, I’ve seen all the different versions, and like them all. Give it to me with or without the noir-ish narration.) The one thought I had about the film that I’d not had before is that there are a lot of individual elements of the film that if take out of context would be either banal or silly sci-fi-geek-babble (Roy Batty’s death speech is a prime example), but which in context of the film are both effective and poignant (Batty’s death speech again, after seeing which I do wonder how Rutger Hauer ended up playing in straight to video nonsense involving chasing Ice T through the woods).

2. The Born Losers

The original Billy Jack. Like many, I had assumed that Billy Jack (1971) had been the first appearance of Tom Laughlin’s Billy Jack character, until I happened upon this movie from 1967 showing on AMC. Tom Laughlin’s there, Billy Jack is a fully formed character doing what Billy Jack did, fighting for those who are innocent and weak against The Man and against outlaw thugs. If you’re a fan of Billy Jack, you should see this (especially if you stuck around for Billy Jack goes to Washington). If not, or if you don’t know who Billy Jack is, don’t bother.

3. Children of Men

One of the better examples of near future science fiction dystopia.

4. Dersu Uzala

One of Akira Kurosawa’s lesser known films, and one of the few set outside of Japan. The title character is a woodsman and guide in Eastern Siberia. This is a sad film, akin in some ways to some Westerns, where modern society ultimately tames a wild land, with the character of Dersu Uzala unable to fit in, and ultimately being tragically victimized by “progress.”

5. Donnie Darko

I was prepared to dislike this movie. I do often dislike “art movies” or “indie movies,” because although a few are quite good, many more are ridiculously pretentious, overly snarky, overly ironic, or otherwise annoying and not half so smart as they aim to be. This movie was none of those things, and was instead entertaining and thought-engaging.

6. Downfall

There was controversy when this German film came out about whether or not it humanized Hitler and those around him in their last days. It did, but only I think in the sense that Hitler, Goebbels, et al. are presented as multi-faceted human beings rather than one dimensional bogey men. If anything, I found myself feeling an even greater sense of revulsion toward the Nazi leadership after viewing the film, though that could just be my reaction.

7. The Fountain

I wasn’t as moved by this film as by Darren Aronofsky’s two earlier movies Pi and Requiem for a Dream, but this is a beautiful and poignant movie (even if at moments a bit draggy, something that often accompanies beautiful and poignant movies).

8. Hiroshima Mon Amour

I’m not quite sure why I had not previously seen this 1959 film by Alain Resnais. It manages to explore the personal and generic horror of war and its effects on individuals without ever feeling exploitative (something difficult to pull off when pulling out footage of Hiroshima after the nuclear attack).

9. Hustle & Flow

Another movie I was prepared to dislike more than to like, in this case because it had been so heavily hyped by so many critics and media outlets. I tend to find that few movies can come close to living up to such hype. I don’t think this is a great movie, but it’s one of my favorites of the year because I thoroughly enjoyed watching just about every minute of it, perhaps especially the acting of Ludacris (his acting was one of the few things I found bearable about the similarly hyped Crash).

10. Kinsey

One of the few biopics that managed to avoid the tedious formula of telling a life through key episodes. Also, probably the only movie I’ve ever seen to convey a sense of social science research method for a popular audience through the clever technique of revealing much biographical detail through footage of Kinsey training research assistants in interview technique with himself as practice subject.

Friday, January 18, 2008

My Favorite Books of 2007 (and One of 2008 So Far), Part II

11. Jean-Claude Izzo, Total Chaos, Europa Editions.

This is my favorite of the books I’ve read in 2008 so far. It’s the first of three books in a crime/mystery series set in Marseilles. The genre is not one I usually go in for, but the writing propels one forward through the text. It also contains some of the best writing about food I’ve encountered in a work that wasn’t dedicated to food writing.

12. Etgar Keret, The Nimrod Flipout, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

One blurb writer, Gary Shteyngart, writes of this short story collection that it is “The best work of literature to come out of Israel in the last five thousand years – better than Leviticus and nearly as funny.” Probably a bit much, but this is an entertaining collection of surreal stories featuring memorable characters such as the beautiful woman who transforms into a fat, hard-drinking, male soccer fan at night.

13. Curzio Malaparte, Kaputt, New York Review Books.

One of the finest and most memorable pieces of surrealist writing I’ve encountered, made the more surreal because of the fact that it’s a work of non-fiction, by the Italian journalist Malaparte writing during World War II. Two mental images from the work will always stay with me: one of German tank drivers in Ukraine swerving in panic to attempt to avoid a pack of dogs running toward them across an open plain, dogs apparently trained to run underneath armored vehicles and strapped with magnetic bombs dooming dogs and tank crews alike; the other of horses driven by forest fire into a Finnish lake in winter, frozen solid by the onset of a winter storm, and their frozen, contorted heads remaining above the frozen lake and serving occasionally as benches for occupying soldiers throughout the winter. His account of occupied Poland is heartrending, the superficial gentility of Polish nobles and occupying Germans alongside the horrors of the Jewish ghettoes.

14. Cormac McCarthy, The Road, Knopf.

This novel was highly hyped, with reviews of the novel in practically every publication that regularly reviews fiction, and with almost universally glowing reviews at that. It’s one of the few novels I’ve read that was so universally acclaimed that I felt lived up to its promise.

This was actually the first McCarthy novel I had read, and at the time I read it, it was probably the bleakest work of fiction I had ever read.

While it’s good enough to transcend genre, it can be placed into a genre of post-apocalyptic fiction.

Most post-apocalyptic fiction, whether in literature or movies, is set either just after a cataclysmic event (think The Day After Tomorrow or Alas, Babylon), with initial survivors coping with the immediate, and sometimes horrific aftermath, but without a sense of the long term consequences of cataclysm, or set long after the apocalypse in question (think about the Mad Max films, particulary The Road Warrior), with human societies having had some time to adapt to the changed circumstances (I wouldn’t want to live in the world of The Road Warrior, but it’s a world in which people could live).

The Road is different in this respect. Some major catastrophe has occurred, with nuclear winter like effects (possibly nuclear attack or major meteor impact, the latter not explicitly indicated in the text but indicated by McCarthy in a recent article in Rolling Stone). The catastrophe has occurred long enough ago that there is a sort of winding down of initially surviving society – no food will grow, there’s essentially nothing wild to forage, and all the easy pickings of grocery store canned goods are long gone – but not long enough ago for anything to have seriously begun any process of natural recovery. It’s a novel set in the lowest point for life following an earth-changing catastrophe.

The novel is also bleak in McCarthy’s pessimism about human nature. Most people in the book are vicious survivors, as ready to kill and eat other survivors (as just about the only food source left) as anything else. Still, there is a tender and redemptive quality (even without anything resembling a clearly happy ending) to the relationship between the two main characters, a man and his son on the road traveling, hoping to find a better place.

15. Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian, Vintage.

The Road had been the bleakest piece of fiction I had read until, after reading it, I picked up this older McCarthy novel. It’s set in the American West of the 19th Century, and is a novel with little intimacy and much casual brutality and violence that still manages to be poignant and even beautiful. McCarthy’s pessimistic view of human nature is clearly on display here. Part of me wants to reject this pessimism, but I know enough of the history of human interactions of the past few centuries (for just a few highlights, think about the 19th Century Indian Wars of the American West, American slavery and the Civil War, the Armenian genocide, the trench warfare of WWI, the Holocaust, the various gulags, great leaps and cultural revolutions, and killing fields of the Soviet Union, China, or Cambodia, the Nanjing massacres, the fire bombings of WWII, Rwanda, Darfur) to realize that McCarthy’s pessimism is at least as valid a perspective as any other.

16. Ben Ratliff, Coltrane: The Story of a Sound, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

I previously wrote about this book (see “Comments on Ben Ratliff’s Coltrane”). This is the best book about music I read last year. Not a Coltrane biography so much as a “biography” of his sound, I found this to be a “delicious” read. It was one of those books I found hard to set down, but that I forced myself to ration because I knew that I’d be sad when I finished it.

17. Joe Sacco, Safe Area Goražde: The War in Eastern Bosnia, 1992 – 95, Fantagraphics Books.

Sacco is a journalist who works in an unconventional medium – graphic art, or more prosaically: comics. Sacco’s presentation of a community under siege in desperate circumstances is, of course, heart-rending for its content alone. His work has some of the same type of impact that good photo-journalism can have, perhaps even more so in that he is able to design and construct his imagery with even freer reign than a photographer in order to have maximum effect upon the reader.

18. Albert Sánchez Piñol, Cold Skin, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

The protagonist is dropped off on a small, lonely island in the southern ocean around Antarctica, well off normal shipping lanes, to serve as a weather observer for a year, only to be continuously besieged by sea monsters. If that sort of thing interests you, this is a great novel. Even if that sort of thing doesn’t interest you, this is a great novel, but you probably wouldn’t like it.

19. José Saramago, Blindness, Harcourt.

One of those “what if” novels I mentioned liking in the introduction to the first part of this list, in this case the premise being “What if everyone went blind at once?” The novel can, of course, be read as allegory – what screams out more for allegorical interpretation than everyone being blind (other than perhaps a plague of zombies) – but I found the novel more interesting and engaging simply as a logical exploration of its starting premise – what would likely happen if everyone (or at least nearly everyone) went blind at once, if everyone lost what is for us humans a primary sense for experiencing the world.

20. Reginald Shepherd, Fata Morgana, University of Pittsburgh Press.

I have to like this book. It’s written by my partner. It’s dedicated to me, as are many of the poems contained therein. Still, even if I weren’t required to love it, I’m confident I would have found this poetry collection to be one of my favorite books of the year. I’m always struck by and fond of the vivid imagery of Shepherd’s poetry. His poetry is lyrical and fearlessly explores feeling and sentiment, something missing from much contemporary poetry that revels in irony, while never devolving into “sentimentality.”

20 1/2. By the way, Shepherd’s most recent book, a collection of essays, Orpheus in the Bronx: Essays on Identity, Politics, and the Freedom of Poetry, has just been published by the University of Michigan Press. I’ve read all of the powerful essays in this essay collection, and considered adding it also to this favorite books of 2007 list. However, I realize that I’ve not yet sat down and read the essays as a collective work yet, so instead I look forward to including it a year from now on my favorite books of 2008 list.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Hillary Clinton Didn't Beat Nobody

It’s a strange day when Karl Rove and The Nation are talking the same line.

The following is from the article, “Rove: Top Dems Can Be Defeated”:

“Rove cited the results of Tuesday's primary in Michigan, where Clinton was the only major Democratic candidate on the ballot and received 55 percent of the votes, with 40 percent voting "uncommitted."
"She's running against nobody, and nobody gets 40 percent of the vote," Rove quipped.”

An editorial from The Nation, “Michigan’s Ominous Message for Hillary Clinton,” rightly claims that when leading candidates in a primary face no opponent with a serious chance of winning the general election, they tend to take home 90% of the primary vote. They cite the examples of George W. Bush’s wins in the 2004 Republican primaries, and Bill Clinton’s primary wins in 1996. They then disingenuously compare Hillary Clinton’s 55 – 60 % take of the vote there earlier in the week as evidence that she lacks support.

It’s being willfully obtuse to imagine that the current primary season at all resembles the 2004 Republican primaries or the 1996 Democratic primaries. What was strange about Michigan this year was the absence of Barack Obama and John Edwards from the Democratic ballot, which meant that Clinton wasn’t running against nobody, and those who voted “uncommitted” weren’t voting or supporting nobody.

Obviously, many, if not most, of the “uncommitted” voters were Edwards or Obama supporters, though we can’t be sure what percentage would have gone to which candidate had they been on the ballot.

Some voters may have been genuinely uncommitted.

Here is where Karl Rove and The Nation are using the same line for quite different ends. Many Republican voters are uncommitted this year because they don’t really support any of the candidates (see “The GOP’s ‘Fusionism’”). Many Democrats are currently uncommitted because they have conflicting support for more than one candidate, a very different situation. I myself am currently undecided about who I’ll vote for in the Florida primary in less than two weeks, not because I haven’t been paying attention, but because I’m torn between three leading candidates, none of whom are perfect, all of whom seem eminently electable and a far cry from what we’ve put up with under Bush.

Rove is trying to drum up support for a notion that all the Democrats are beatable, that even leading candidates like Clinton really have little support. The Nation seems to be simply taking an anti-Hillary editorial line. There are some good reasons for this. For example, see this other editorial from The Nation about electoral shenanigans in Nevada, “Clinton Allies Suppress the Vote in Nevada.” It’s just that in the particular case of “Michigan’s Ominous Message” the publication has taken an unsavory tack (and really distorted the truth) to come out against Hillary.

Note: I had intended to post the second half of my favorite books of 2007 list today until I encountered the news article and editorial I respond to here. I’ll post the second half of the book list tomorrow.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

My Favorite Books of 2007, Part I

Since it’s still pretty early in the year, I decided to reflect on my year in reading for 2007 and compile a list of my favorite books of last year. The books I’ve included are my favorites of the books I read in 2007. This is not a list of what I think are the best books of 2007: some had been sitting on my book shelves for a few years waiting to be read, and no doubt some of my favorite books that came out in 2007 will be my favorite reads of 2010 or so. These books are favorites in different ways – some were fun, entertaining reading, others the sorts of books I’ve found myself repeatedly thinking about ever since, some profoundly moving – but they’re all books I’m passionate about in one way or another.

In reflecting on my favorite books of the year, I’m struck by several things:

1. There’s a lot of fiction on my list. The novels and short fiction I enjoy most provide much more than escapism, but there’s no doubt that like many readers, one of the things I enjoy about fiction is the temporary reprieve from whatever I’m stressed or worried about. I suspect so much fiction shows up on my list this year in part because I’ve been stressed and worried about some major things this year, most notably my grandmother’s long battle with throat cancer, and ultimately her death in late November, and a series of episodes of illness and serious pain for my partner, and ultimately his own diagnosis with cancer, surgery, and continuing chemotherapy.

2. Most of my favorite books last year were written by men. I’m not quite sure what’s up with that. It does not fit my long term reading patterns and likes. Certainly, if I think of the ethnographies (as a cultural anthropologist, probably the type of book I’ve read the most of over the course of many years) that have been my favorites or most influenced my thinking (not necessarily the same things), the majority have been by women writers, even if I’m not really sure why that’s the case, either. One conjecture is that I read not just a lot of fiction last year, but a lot of male-written fiction, and I think you could argue (though you could also very easily over-generalize) that male written fiction is often more escapist than female written, and maybe that’s appealed to me over the past year without my quite realizing it. Or maybe it’s just the sort of random pattern that can crop up whenever you’re dealing with small samples. Even though I read considerably more books in any given year than the average person (as I would presume would be true for any academic), the set of books I read in a given year, much less my favorites among them, is too small a sample to make much of in terms of quasi-statistical generalization.

3. There’s not much anthropology on the list. Only three books were written by anthropologists (Asad, Dumont, and Sánchez Piñol), and one of those, Sánchez Piñol’s Cold Skin, was a novel, and only one, Dumont’s Under the Rainbow was an ethnography.

This is not a statement on my part about the state of the discipline. I read several ethnographies that were good, but didn’t quite grab me as favorites. (I’m not going to list them – I at least know better than to piss people off by listing books that I thought were bad, mediocre, or okay but not great.) Most of my reading for pleasure was devoted to fiction this year, as noted above. I also had quite a kick during part of the year reading books that were not strictly speaking anthropological ethnographies, but were in one way or another “writing culture,” and several of those works do show up on my list below.

4. Most of my favorite novels have one or two things in common. I’m not a huge fan of science fiction, although I’ve read a lot of it, and some of my all-time favorite books fit into the genre. For a genre based on the notion of wholesale imagining of alternate realities, I tend to find most science fiction shockingly conventional.

Most of my favorite fiction does tend to share with science fiction the imagining of alternate realities, that things could be significantly different than in my own particular situation. (This is not, at least at this point in my life, because I’m particularly unhappy with my life, but more because I find it intellectually engaging.)

Most of my favorite fiction tends to do this in one of a couple ways, either by having some of the qualities of magical realism or surrealism, where the reality depicted is in many, if not most, ways congruent with our “real” world, but functions, and in a matter of fact way, in significantly different ways in some respect, or by taking the world as we tend to know it and spinning out the ramifications of “what if” questions (What if everyone went blind at once? What if a plague of zombie-ism broke out around the world?).

Without any further adieu, the first half of my favorite books of 2007 (in alphabetical order):

1. Talal Asad, On Suicide Bombing, Columbia University Press.

Not exactly a fun read, but a thoughtful rumination on terrorism, suicide bombing, and reasons for a sort of Western preoccupation with suicide bombing.

2. Alessandro Baricco, An Iliad, Knopf.

I’ve discussed Baricco’s version of the Iliad on two occasions on this blog: “Uses of Myth” and “Myth, Mythic Literacy, and Contemporary Culture.” It’s a nicely done telling, not quite a translation, of Homer’s classic.

3. Max Brooks, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, Crown.

This is one of the “What if” novels I mentioned above, and I think it’s apparent from the title what the “what if” is. In addition to being an entertaining zombie yarn, this novel is also formally interesting, as it is presented as if an actual oral history collected among survivors of the Great Zombie War.

4. Octavia Butler, Fledgling, Seven Stories.

The only vampire novel on my favorite books of the year list (and yes, I did read other vampire works). Everything I’ve ever read by Butler, including Fledgling, has been smart and what I’d describe as “light” – not light in the sense of fluff or lacking substance, but in the sense of being fleet, with its prose providing for a fluid, quick read. (Although in other ways being extremely different from each other or from Butler, two other favorite writers that have this quality, at least for me, are Ismail Kadare and Imre Kertesz. For all three, I’ve had the experience of surprising myself by reading long, substantive works in quite short periods of time, in contrast to the “heaviness” or density of prose of some other favorite writers. For example, I find myself not so much bogged down [that would imply something unpleasant] but considerably slowed by the prose of Orhan Pamuk or José Saramago.)

5. Sandra Cisneros, Woman Hollering Creek, and other stories, Vintage.

I can’t put my finger on exactly what I found so engaging about this story collection, but it’s quite good. Not having something more substantive to say, I’ll engage here in non sequitur and note that the title story’s title refers to one of my favorite place names: Woman Hollering Creek near San Antonio, Texas. (Another favorite place name that I tend to associate with it is Hungry Mother State Park in Southern Virginia.)

6. Joan Didion, Salvador, Lester & Orpen Dennys.

Published in 1983, this is a beautiful and extremely unsettling account of an unsettling place in the early 1980s.

7. Jean-Paul Dumont, Under the Rainbow: Nature and Supernature among the Panare Indians, University of Texas Press.

The only ethnography on my list, I had been meaning to read this older work from the 1960s ever since I picked it up in a used book shop in Boston a few years ago. It has one of the coolest chapter titles ever, “Time and Astrosexuality,” has plenty of wonderfully baroque structuralist diagrams, and does what many of my favorite ethnographies do – it vividly characterizes a particular culture that is fascinating in its complexity (and really it is complexity of both the Panare and Dumont’s text that is fascinating).

8. Sesshu Foster, Atomik Aztex, City Lights.

This is the “trippiest” novel I’ve read in a long time. (William S. Burroughs’ The Western Lands, which involves Billy the Kid and the Egyptian Book of the Dead, is perhaps more “trippy,” but I read that probably 15 years ago when I was on a brief Burroughs kick.) The main character is an Aztec warrior in an alternative universe/time line in which Aztec ritual and magic had enabled the survival of that empire, and in which the protagonist aids the Soviets in the defense of Stalingrad against the Germans in WWII, and in which he is destined ultimately to be sacrificed atop a pyramid. At the same time, the main character is in our universe, or at least one very like our own, a Mexican-American slaughter house worker in Southern California.

9. Jean Hatzfeld, Machete Season: The Killers in Rwanda Speak, Picador.

I previously wrote of Hatzfeld’s book (“A Typology of Genocide”). This is an important book, both in shedding light on one of history’s worst genocides through the voices of some of the killers themselves and in its analysis of genocide and other ethnic violence.

10. Gertrude Himmelfarb, The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments, Vintage.

Some reviews critiqued and/or dismissed this book as a conservative revision of the Enlightenment. Certainly, Himmelfarb offers a conservative perspective on the Enlightenment, e.g. in her emphasis on the importance of religious writers in the American strain of the Enlightenment, but unlike Fox News, this careful and often insightful book is fair and balanced. For example, it makes equally clear the role of those same religious writers in contributing to the separation of church and state in the U.S., and Himmelfarb’s book makes more clear than anything else I’ve read how liberal Adam Smith could be (in both the sense of classical economic liberalism and the contemporary sense of social liberalism), and how different he could be from contemporary neo-liberals and neo-conservatives who so often invoke him.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

The GOP's "Fusionism"

The electoral success of the Republican Party in recent decades has been built in part through a fusion of disparate groups, free-marketeers, foreign policy hawks, and Christian religious conservatives.

In a recent column, GOP “Fusionism” Comes Un-Fused, Robert Tracinski notes an important difference in the dilemmas facing Democratic and Republican voters in the ongoing primary season. For Democrats, while there are minor and subtle differences of substance among the front-running candidates, voters are left trying to choose between candidates who differ largely in style (especially for Clinton and Obama; arguably less so with Edwards). Many Republican voters are left trying to discern which candidate they dislike least (something long familiar to progressive Democrats).

Tracinski writes:

“So consider the line-up: if you're a pro-free-marketer, you've got Rudy--but you can't trust Romney, you know McCain is dangerous, and Huckabee denounces you as a member of the "Club for Greed." If you're a hawk, you've got Rudy and McCain and maybe Romney--but Huckabee sounds too much like Jimmy Carter. And if you're a religious conservative, you're thrilled with Huckabee, but you're suspicious of McCain, you don't trust Romney, and Rudy is at best barely tolerable. There's no fusion here. There is certainly an intersection between the hawks and the pro-free-marketers--but there is no intersection that joins them to the religionists. This is not an accident. There is no such intersection in this election because the secular and religious concerns of the right are, in fact, incompatible. Fusionism is failing because its basic premise--that the moral foundations of free markets and Americanism can be left to the religious traditionalists--is false.”

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Affluence and Cheap Cars

I recently wrote about some of the causes behind the current global food price inflation. Two of the more obvious and interrelated causes are the high price of oil and the diversion of significant amounts of grain production for biofuel production.

Another reason, though, is a negative consequence of a positive development. In recent years, in India and China and some other developing countries, there has been a real and significant rise of affluence. This is a good thing; even if this increase in affluence has been highly uneven (and it has been), the real rise in standards of living of many is a socially positive development. One consequence has been an increased demand for food, including more meat, on the part of those with somewhat higher standards of living than before, and this has contributed to global food price inflation.

There have been other developments in relation to the growth of sectors of populations in many developing countries with somewhat higher standards of living than before. Tata’s unveiling of the “Nano,” an ultracheap car designed for the Indian market is just one example of products of all sorts being designed primarily for India’s or China’s growing middle class, something that will have positive effects, e.g. increased personal mobility and autonomy, but also many negative consequences, e.g. all the sorts of negative environmental effects of affluence common already in more highly developed economies.

The following is from a recent news article about the unveiling of Tata’s “Nano”:

“The potential impact of Tata's Nano has given environmentalists nightmares, with visions of the tiny cars clogging India's already-choked roads and collectively spewing millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the air.

“Industry analysts, however, say the car may soon deliver to India and the rest of the developing world unprecedented mobility.”

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Art Music and Popular Music

Recently, in writing of Leonard Bernstein, I mentioned Bernstein as a composer who bridged an admittedly arbitrary (but sociologically real) divide between “high art” music and “popular” music.

Bernstein was not the first or only composer to do this. On further reflection I realized that there at least three types of ways in which different composers have bridged or blended the “high” and the “popular.”

One important side issue is that there are at least two different ways of conceptualizing the popular, the popular in the sense of folk culture and music or in the sense of modern “pop culture” or “mass culture.” While this can be an important distinction, as I said, here it is a side issue. Whether thinking about folk or pop music, these musics can be incorporated or combined with art music in a number of ways.

First, some composers have drawn on popular music as source material for the production of art music. In some cases, this takes the relatively straightforward form of simply arranging or orchestrating folk or pop songs, such as with Berio’s “Folk Songs” or the arrangements and orchestrations of Duke Ellington songs by Luther Henderson, as performed by Simon Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra on the album Classic Ellington. In other cases, the melodic and other content of folk or pop material might be thoroughly varied and transformed to produce art music with less clear (though not to say unclear) connection to the popular source material, e.g. some of Bartok’s use of Hungarian folk music, or the use of folk melodies in Dvorak’s Symphony #9 “From the New World.” Of course, the use of one sort of music as source material for another sort of music is a two-way street. Think of Malcolm McLaren’s “Madame Butterfly,” Walter Murphy’s “A Fifth of Beethoven,” or David Shire’s “Night on Disco Mountain” (the latter two from the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack).

Second, some composers have also drawn on popular music as source material but in ways that present popular music in recognizable form but in collage with other material. Charles Ives was an early master of such music. For example, in “Central Park in the Dark,” written as a sort of musical evocation of a place, recognizable bits of popular tunes occasionally enter and fade upon the theme of the piece, just as one might catch momentary passages of music coming from neighboring saloons while on a stroll through the park in the early 20th century. (There’s one musical moment in particular where, through the indelible influences of other elements of pop culture, the recognizable strain of an early 20th century pop tune inevitably evokes for me the thought of the singing frog from the old, but later, Warner Brothers cartoons, “Hello, my baby, hello, my darling, hello, my ragtime gal…”) Some of contemporary composer Osvaldo Golijov’s music works in a similar vein, e.g. the use of Latin American folk music in his “St. Mark Passion.”

Third, some composers draw on popular and art music traditions (rather than particular pieces as source material) simultaneously to produce music that is ambiguously new popular music and new art music. This is where much of Bernstein’s work fits, most famously West Side Story (though I tend to think of his Mass in the prior category). Another example would be Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. (Today, though still popular in the sense that large numbers of people still enjoy them, the genres of Broadway-style showtunes and jazz are no longer typically thought of as “pop music,” and they tend to always occupy an ambiguous position between art and popular music. What Bernstein and Gershwin succeeded in doing that was a bit different was creating new music that was simultaneously taken seriously [even if not by everyone] as opera and/or art music and as popular music, as opposed to participating in a genre that today resides fuzzily between popular and art music.)